Seán Mac Diarmada (Sean MacDermott) is yet another one of the 1916 Easter Rising leaders who has remained in the historical shadow of other prominent leaders who have enjoyed iconic status in the history books. He has been described by some as one of the greatest of the Easter Rising's leaders.
Mac Diarmada was born Corronmore, County Leitrim in 1883. He was the son of Donald MacDermot, a carpenter / farmer, and his wife Mary McMorrow. His father had been a Fenian in Limerick, and it was natural for him to follow in his father's traditions. He was educated during the daytime at Corradoona National School, and at night school in Tullinamoyle, County Cavan where he learned bookkeeping and the Irish language (which he spoke fluently).
During his childhood, he was brought up within a landscape that had all the signs of dereliction. In addition to the ancient sweat houses, Mac Diarmada's surroundings were characterised by symbols poverty and oppression, such as "mass rocks (where the Catholic mass had to be held due to Catholicism's prohibition by the British establishment during the Penal Laws era). Deserted houses and mud huts dotted the land where persecutions had taken place from the time of "The Great Hunger" onwards.
He eventually left County Leitrim, moving first to Scotland and then back to Belfast where he worked a tram driver and doing some work as a barman.
Mac Diarmada was always politically active. This was due to a combination of factors, including his father's influence and and the memories of his childhood in County Leitrim; where he had witnessed the appalling dereliction. He joined the Gáelic League and the politically moderate Ancient Order of Hibernians. He then joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood and was sworn in by fellow activist Denis McCullough. He went on to assist with the organisation of the Republican Dungannon Clubs.
Left: Main road through Kiltyclogher, County Leitrim; Right: Seán Mac Diarmada's boyhood house
Mac Diarmada also acted as an organizer for the Sinn Féin movement. He became a full-time organizer for the Irish Republican Army (IRB) and managed its newspaper, Irish Freedom. He was stricken with Polio about this time, which left him with a limp. Undeterred, he eventually recovered sufficiently to be able to walk with a walking stick to carry on his dream of making Ireland a Free State.
It has been said that he was infiltrating the cultural organizations at this time, such as the Gáelic League and the Gáelic Athletic Association (GAA) recruiting members to the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Where possible, he would get them elected as officers of relevant committees, thereby creating a body of men who would inherently be under his command.
It has also been said that Mac Diarmada, together with Tom Clarke, McCullough, and Hobson revitalized the Irish Republican Army. This group would eventually assume virtual control of all Irish groups around 1911. The outbreak of the first World War saw him campaign against Irishmen joining the British Army. His strenuous efforts were to gain him a four-month prison sentence under the Defence of The Realm Act. He served out this sentence at Mountjoy Gaol.
Upon his release, both he and Tom Clarke were co-opted into the IRB Military Council. It was in this organization that Mac Diarmada (according to the historian F.X. Martin) played a leading role in the planning of the 1916 Easter Rising. Martin characterizes him as being the "mainspring" in the planning of the Easter Rising.
Left: Seán Mac Diarmada upon his release from Mountjoy Gaol in 1915
Mac Diarmada was obsessively secretive about his role as planning officer as he knew from experience that past Irish freedom movements had been bedeviled with spies and informers. Thus, he excluded most of his fellow IRB members from the planning phases. This would eventually prove to be disastrous, and it would contribute to the confusion surrounding the outbreak of the 1916 Easter Rising.
Although he had no military rank, most possibly due to his disability, Mac Diarmada was recognized as one of the Commanders in charge. This was largely due to his membership and signatory of the Provisional Government and his role in the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He was stationed at the General Post Office throughout the Easter Rising as "one of the Provisional Government." In the aftermath of the fighting, he nearly got away by mingling with the crowd. However, a British officer picked out the man with the walking stick and declared that "he was the most dangerous man after Clarke." Another officer sneered, "So the Sinn Feiners take cripples in their army."
One historian described him as follows: “Séan MacDiarmada was one of the greatest of the Easter Rising Leaders. He was so quiet and unassuming that he tends to be forgotten; yet, he was one of the greatest Irishmen that ever lived.”
In a statement prior to his execution he said: “I feel happiness, the like of which I have never experienced. I die that the Irish nation might live!”
Mac Diarmada was court martialled on the 9th of May, 1916. On the 12th of May, 1916 at the age of just 33 years, he was executed by firing squad.
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